Morrissey was in fine form when he started his North American tour Thursday night, though the set was tough to connect to.

morrissey photo
Morrissey

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, a young Stephen Morrissey gave a generation permission to mope. Thursday, he returned to New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre as your emotionally needy uncle—all bitterness and open wounds with unclear boundaries. In a black velour shirt with a broad gold V, he paced the stage of the Saenger Theatre snapping his lengthy microphone cord, sometimes singing with his arms folded as if delivering a sociology lecture for the umpteenth time. His hair is gray and thinning with the ghost of pompadours past rising in front, but his eyebrows remain wondrous, woolly and black. They moved of their own volition, independent of the emotion in a line. Morrissey’s face and particularly his eyebrows didn’t rest for the duration of the show, even when he wasn’t singing.

His voice didn’t give his eyebrows a chance to show him up, though. He was at his swoony finest for “The World is Full of Crashing Bores,” but he also summoned a foot-in-a-bear trap howl for the end of “I’m Not a Man” and delivered “World Peace is None of Your Business” with all the necessary vocal ornamentation to piledrive home the notion that the government is not on your side. 

His commitment and energy were reassuring because his health was part of the show's backdrop. Thursday, Morrissey told The Guardian that he was dead for nine minutes after a bout with food poisoning in Peru in 2013, and his 2014 American tour ended prematurely because he now says he was dealing with cancer.  

Opening with “Suedehead” and “Staircase at the University” put any concerns to rest before Morrissey’s world overlapped with ours for “Ganglord,” “World Peace is None of Your Business,” and “Speedway”—a devastating series of songs about repression and cruelty. “Ganglord” was particularly effective paired with videos of police violence against African Americans in the streets and interrogation rooms while Morrissey sang:

Remember, the police can always be bribed
They say "To protect and to serve"
But what they really mean to say is
"Get back to the ghetto”

Morrissey doubled the impact of the vitriolic “Speedway” by singing it, cutting to a blackout and full stop by the band, then letting keyboard player Gustavo Manzur move to centerstage to sing the song again en español. It didn’t lose any of its violence in the process.

After the quintessentially Morrissey pop of the first two songs and the bracing brutality of the next three, the energy in the Saenger dissipated. The audience didn’t go dead on him, but it seemed to be waiting for a reason to get excited and Morrissey simply being there wasn’t enough. He stayed in the game too, taking the hands of fans in the front row with surprising tenderness, and stopping occasionally to talk briefly to the crowd in ironic, self-protective tones. He told the story of watching the television news in Dallas and seeing a report that a truck carrying 2,200 piglets to Chicago was in an accident that killed more than half. Some of those that lived ran off and had to be recovered to be sent to a sanctuary. “Unless the sanctuary is called ’sandwich,’” he said dismissively, “I don’t believe them.” 

It didn’t help that he leaned hard on last year’s flint-hearted World Peace is None of Your Business. All of the songs from the album were more powerful and distinctive live than on the album, but Morrissey’s gift and curse is the way his fans have mapped their own insecurities and fears on to his through his songs. The curdled perspective reflected in the title shows up time and again in the songs from the album, makes them tough to join. “The Bullfighter Dies” revisits Morrissey’s animal rights stance with bitter humor, and “Kick the Bride Down the Aisle” presents him at his most Britishly misogynistic.

The Smiths’ “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” and “Everyday is Like Sunday” brought back the warm, gray fuzzies the previous 45 or so minutes lacked, but they came to an abrupt halt with a harsh “Meat is Murder,” complete with a grizzly video that shows in painful detail how animals become food. During the band’s slaughterhouse instrumental section, Morrissey turned his back to the audience and watched the video yet again, as perhaps he does every night.

“Now My Heart is Full,” ended the set on a note of guarded warmth—perhaps the only kind Morrissey musters—but it wasn’t the musical thrill ride you’d expect to close a show. That came with an exhilarating punk rock attack on “The Queen is Dead.” Its fancies made it a younger man’s song for me, but no one around me seemed disappointed. And when the options are the dyspeptic Morrissey venting his spleen or the younger Morrissey fantasizing of regicide between bouts of loneliness, the choice is clear.